My father was a town policeman during the 1950s in York County, PA. He was a police chief for the small police force in Windsor, PA, for a time.
I have written about him here in the past, focusing on his military service in World War II. But something he said to me back in the mid-1990s about policing stuck with me.
I was visiting home soon after the Johnny Gammage incident. Gammage was a Black Pittsburgh businessman who several police officers murdered. The man who was believed to have actually killed Gammage was problematic, to say the least (and retired from the force in 2019). This story made national news for a time, and my father was well aware of it.
So, I asked him what he thought about it. He said, first, that the way Gammage died, asphyxiation due to a night-stick pressed to his upper chest, told him this cop was doing the exact opposite of what he would do. If you are trying to subdue someone, cutting off their airflow will only make them struggle more, for obvious reasons. And then he said this:
“Some guys get into police work just to be able to bust heads and no one says anything. That has to change.”
He spoke from experience and said those police officers are real problems, but even worse was all the protection they received. That leads me to the Tyre Nichols murder. First off, I will let the excellent writer for The Guardian, Simon Balto, address the fact that in this case, all of the police who killed Nichols are Black, and why that does not matter as much as many want to believe.
And then there is the matter of race. There will be people who point to the fact that all five officers who killed Tyre Nichols are Black, and use the fact to argue that it disproves a racist angle to his death. This is false. Just as catastrophic violence is not aberrational to policing but rather part of it because it is the institution not the individual that is the problem, so is it true that Black police officers can be just as implicated in the violent white supremacy of policing as can officers who are not Black.
Indeed, for more than 100 years at this point, reformers (some of them Black, some of them not) have argued that one key to resolving this country’s generations-deep crisis of racist policing is to hire more Black and brown officers. And for nearly as long, Black intellectuals from Langston Hughes to members of the Black Panther party have noted that that way lies madness, understanding well that the problem is not the individual who dons the uniform. The problem is the institution that the uniform embodies.
There was a time, a mere two years ago, when it appeared that we were on our way to serious police reform in this country. The George Floyd murder galvanized a nation, shaming many of the knee-jerk police defenders into silence and causing some who were on the fence to think that some real action had to be taken. The video of his death was horrible, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest that despite what too many people now believe, were mostly peaceful. There was also plenty of evidence that at least some of the violence carried out in the protests was done by white supremacists.
Trump and his minions, on the other hand, were deeply focused on portraying the protests as violent. He had his enablers as well, and not just among the far right. People like Failed Public Intellectual Thomas Chatterton Williams, a so-called moderate, became so obsessed with leftist violence that he was on Twitter mocking left protestors in Portland for an hour into the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection until I guess he realized what was happening. Then his first reaction was to blame “leftists” for inspiring right-wing violence.
So, after a while, the desire for reform faded and 2022 was the most deadly year on record for US police killings. So what happened? For starters, I think a lot of it is we just do not have the stomach for the type of massive reform necessary. “Defund the Police” was used as an excuse; after a while, you heard more moderates screaming the term on Morning Joe than you did anyone on the left, yet another example of moderates carrying the water for the far-right. This enabled the far-right GOP to attack any attempt at reform as “Defund the Police.”
But, it’s clear we need some sort of wide-ranging reform. Police are not necessarily great on their own at crime prevention (outright horrible I guess if you are one of those who believe the nonsense that crime is at record highs). Police are often asked to do things that should not be part of their work, as this 2020 Vox piece points out.
Police do fight crime, to be sure — but they are mainly called upon to be social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental health counselors, detailed report writers, neighborhood patrollers, and low-level law enforcers, sometimes all in the span of a single shift. In fact, the overwhelming majority of officers spend only a small fraction of their time responding to violent crime.
Another issue is the infiltration of police (and military) by far-right militia types, who beyond the problem of having radical racists policing Black neighborhoods also view this as paid tactical training for their militia members. Not to mention that there is also plenty of video evidence that police react more forcefully to left or minority protestors than they do white or far-right protestors (January 6 is a glaring example).
Also, as poll after poll shows, the overwhelming majority of Black Americans WANT police in their neighborhoods, just not THIS VERSION of police.
Will we go through with such reform? I have my doubts. We have so many issues in our justice system and reforming them is a long struggle. For example, the slowness in investigating Trump and far-right politicians has enabled them to continue doing damage to our country. The defense of this by very respectable and smart people like Marci Wheeler is becoming less and less a slam-dunk argument in defense of our system and more and more making an inadvertent argument that this portion of our justice system is also in dire need of reform.
I suppose some of this reluctance to do any real reform comes from fear of making things worse somehow, but I also think that some of it is navel-gazing complacency. After all, many white people think, I don’t have to worry about any of this. But I myself worry that is a false hope, that at some point, a very bad actor will come along and use our system against us in even greater and worse ways than is already happening.
There has to be a better way. We are a great nation full of smart people, and if anyone can pull it off, we can. But we have to want to first.
The last word goes to guitar legend and highly influential songwriter Tom Verlaine, one of the founders of the legendary band Television. This band gets labeled as a punk outfit given their origins in the 1970s CBGBs scene, but they were pretty much their own thing, producing a wildly creative sound that many artists list as an influence to this day. This epic pretty much defies any labels (a 10-minute punk song? Okay, sure). I guess prog punk? Punk prog? Who would ever dare attempt such a thing? Tom Verlaine, that’s who.
2 thoughts on “Tyre Nichols And Fear Of Reform”
What the Tyre Nichols case shows, is that if you want police to be held legally accountable for their actions, they have to be Black.
So hire 100% black police, then. Won’t necessarily stop the abuse, but it might get the abusers prosecuted. The abusive white cops have to be removed via sniper-rifle, which is a bit too extreme.
Yeah, I played that song yesterday too. But I also played one that’s more germane to your post: “See No Evil.”
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